Rufus landed hard on the dirt floor. Rose had summoned up all her strength to kick him with both feet after he attempted to crawl into bed with her. She had always feared him. Rufus was used to getting his way. Rose and others thought of him as a bully. Now he had the full support of Master Hawkins to force himself on her, and she detested the idea. It wasn’t the first time that she’d been attacked, and she was damned if it was going to happen tonight. She knew it was pointless, but still she needed to resist, or she didn’t know what might come next. She vowed one thing that night: if she survived to freedom, she’d never again let any man come near her or touch her or think about her like that. Ever. No matter what.
For generations now, this has largely been the accepted version of Rose’s and Rufus’s experiences. As scholars have shown, Rose’s experiences were shared by many enslaved women. Her interview poignantly reveals her thoughts and feelings regarding her own family and her forced coupling with a man she disliked. In the imagined version that begins this chapter, we learn little about Rufus, leaving gaps that to date had been filled with assumptions about his experiences in this situation. This book has argued that enslaved men like Rufus were also sexually exploited and abused in a range of ways.
One of the ways that enslaved men were sexually violated was through the social and cultural denigration of their bodies, which were objectified, fetishized, degraded, and abused. Enslaved men’s genitalia were groped, scrutinized, imagined, and even tortured, all because black men’s sexuality was symbolized by their genitals and thought of as a source of power—a strength that had to be possessed or put down. Enslaved men’s bodies were also punished in ways that attested to their status as slaves, underscored by nudity—an aspect of whipping that enslaved men repeatedly noted as especially degrading.
Enslaved men spoke of many of the aspects of sexual abuse and exploitation described in this book. Their emphasis on independence of choice of intimate partner, of the dehumanization of being forced to partner with someone other than the one they chose, of the risks taken to see and be with women they loved and desired—all speak to their definition of manhood as one of independence and autonomy in the area of love and intimacy.
Many others reflected on the expectations to reproduce that all enslaved people found themselves operating under. Such expectations played themselves out in various ways, depending on the assertions of enslavers. Some allowed enslaved people to pair up as they desired—as long as they did indeed couple. Others took a more involved approach and coerced men and women to reproduce, paying little attention to the wants and desires of those involved and much more attention to strength, fitness, and financial bottom lines. The forced and coerced coupling of enslaved men, of course, did not affect men as it did women. Men did not get pregnant, their health jeopardized by childbirth, their hearts and minds forever impacted by the experience. But most men did experience the expectation to reproduce, and many experienced the trauma and violation of forced reproduction. Culturally, the ramifications for this emphasis on reproduction could be significant. The valuing of fertility and virility contributed to categories of manliness and of manhood that in some cases set up some men as inferior. Those deemed superior attained a different status in the community that could be isolating and carry its own burdens.
Those enslaved men who found themselves in relations with white women faced their own litany of hazards. To date, little attention has been paid to the vulnerable position of enslaved men in intimate relations with white women. The prevalence of these relationships has not alarmed scholars; instead, it has been pointed to as evidence of the permeability of rigid racial hierarchies and of the possibility for men and women to resist white patriarchal authority. But as this book has argued, the relations between white women and enslaved men need to be reconsidered and recontextualized in the setting of enslavement and sexual power. The image of hypersexualized enslaved men served to demonize and define the population of black men, but it also raised the radical possibility for some white women of the desirability of such men as highly sexual and accomplished—a model of masculinity that highlighted power, strength, and mastery rather than moderation and self-control. At a minimum, the sheer numbers of relations between white women and enslaved men should be understood in part as a product of the availability of enslaved men to white women’s advances.
Of course, the desirability of enslaved men would not have only been limited to white women. Some white men also sexually abused enslaved men. Sexual abuse and exploitation of a wide variety of forms occurred under slavery as white men enacted and asserted their power over enslaved men in many situations. The culturally celebrated special bond between enslaved valets and enslavers masked a world of inequality and risks for enslaved men of the sort that the phrase “sexual vulnerability” can only just begin to describe. As this book has argued, enslaved men such as Rufus were themselves often subjected to sexual exploitation and abuses. Recognizing this aspect of slavery, rethinking Rufus expands our understanding of the experiences of all who were touched by enslavement.
Studying sexual violence against enslaved men helps underscore that sexual violations were about power. This point has been made since the advent of feminist theorizing about sexual violence against women, but it is often obscured by heterosexual interactions within slavery, especially those involving long-term relationships, which can appear to be about romantic desire as much as about power. Examining the sexual exploitation of enslaved men necessitates that we enlarge our frameworks for understanding sexual violence against enslaved people. To date, the study of women has largely focused on rape and reproduction. Examining enslaved men necessitates a broader view, incorporating sexual objectification, everyday interactions, same-sex sexual violations, and other less studied aspects of life.
Rethinking Rufus, therefore, also allows for rethinking Rose and the sexual violations of enslaved women. Reconsidering the position of Rose as a coerced partner of a man who was himself victimized raises additional questions to ponder. How complex was their relationship and their moments of trust and resentment if we view them not simply as perpetrator and victim but instead as two adults caught in multilayered webs of abuse and exploitation? How might Rose have thought about her own children and their vulnerability? Scholars have pointed to the abolitionist era lamentation that enslaved men suffered by their frustrated ability to protect their female dependents from sexual exploitation. This book argues that we must also imagine the worries, fears, and attempts of enslaved men and women to protect boys and young men from sexual violations.
Rethinking Rufus means rethinking the community of enslaved people. What impact did sexually violated men have on their communities as they sought to protect themselves and their loved ones? In what ways did enslaved men shield themselves from the pain of being denied autonomy in their intimate lives? How did this affect the families they did establish and the broader sense of kin and community that grew from that fragility? Undoubtedly, while some would be drawn to pull loved ones closer, others would respond with emotional barriers and distancing. Rethinking Rufus entails a vast restructuring of our understanding of the experiences of enslaved men and women, their communities, their kin, and even their enslavers.
Fully accounting for the position of Rufus has implications for rethinking the history of sexuality so as to be more cognizant of the influence of slavery. The traditional history of sexuality in America perhaps still emphasizes urban developments of middle-class whites. Understandings of how sexual othering affected mainstream concepts of sexuality have not fully examined how enslavement and abolition informed understandings of sexuality. This book suggests that because they touched virtually everyone in some manner, the conditions of slavery broadly informed the history of sexuality in America. As the evidence here implies, in myriad ways slavery affected experiences, identities, and even public discussions. For enslaved people, a host of aspects of life under the lash—objectification of bodies, coerced and forced coupling, the value of same-sex bonds—impacted understandings of normative behavior and even assessments of physical types, all of which refracted back and forth with enslavers and even, especially, with the popularizing of sexualized imagery put forth by abolitionists, the wider culture.
All of these aspects of sexual abuse and exploitation—objectification and fetishization, coerced reproduction, relations with white women and men—require a fundamental rethinking of the position of men like Rufus and of slavery in general. Rethinking Rufus suggests connections between sexual violations of enslaved men and the emerging scholarship on how slavery enabled the development of capitalism. As Edward Baptist, for example, has argued with regard to the sexual exploitation of enslaved women, their bodies were central to the productivity that fueled the nation’s economic development. The exploitation of enslaved men’s bodies operated in related ways. The intimacies and abuses analyzed here were conducive to, not antithetical to, the growth and maintenance of enslavement.1 But as much as this book has implications for understanding more fully such institutions and discourses, its primary focus, of course, has been on the experiences of enslaved people, primarily sexually violated men, as a way of better understanding the past. Understanding those experiences more fully is one avenue for honoring those lives. The legacy of slavery continues to shape our economy, society, and culture in myriad ways. Examining this history of sexual violence against enslaved men allows us to also begin reconsidering how understandings of gender and sexuality continue to be shaped by the past.